BOWLING GREEN — After six hours in a federal courtroom, a jury pool of 52 was struck down to 14 citizens who will sit in the jury box for the next eight to 10 days, deciding the verdict in a deprivation of rights case involving the Barren County sheriff and two other law enforcement officials.
Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, BCSO deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force detective Eric Guffey face charges in the U.S. District Court Western District of Kentucky of deprivation of rights under color of law, making false statements to federal investigators, witness tampering, falsification of a document and destruction of record, document or tangible object, for an arrest incident that occurred more than three years ago. The case is being prosecuted by Washington D.C.-based U.S. Department of Justice civil rights attorneys Roy Conn III and Sanjay Patel.
J. Guthrie True, of Frankfort, is representing Eaton; Buddy Alexander, of Glasgow, is representing Bennett; and Brian Butler, of Louisville, represents Guffey.
Along with being asked background questions to expose potential prejudices, members of the jury pool spent much of the day listening to Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. explain the legal process and the role of jurors in a trial. The most important principle for the jurors to remember throughout the trial process is that the defendants are presumed innocent until the prosecution proves them to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, McKinley said. "You've got to believe that or you just can't find them guilty."
It's not enough for jurors to go into the trial feeling neutral toward both the defense and prosecution, True said. Jurors have to assume the defendants are innocent, and the prosecuting attorneys have to present compelling enough evidence to change their minds. The burden of proof is on the government.
If the defendants are guilty, that must be proven by the evidence presented in trial, McKinley said. Evidence in a case only includes witness testimony and exhibits presented during the proceedings. No other factors, including media coverage a juror has heard or anything the lawyers say or do during the trial should have an impact, McKinley said. Attorneys' arguments are not legal evidence.
Along those lines, the judge said jurors must also refrain from forming an opinion about a defendant's guilt until the end of the trial.
"You just have to try to keep an open mind until you hear all the evidence," McKinley said.
Evidence can be direct or circumstantial, he said, and it is up to each juror to decide how much weight he or she will give each individual piece of evidence.
About six jurors were removed early in the proceeding due to close ties to one of the defendants. The rest of the jurors were asked a series of questions by McKinley, the prosecutors and defense attorneys. Juror candidates were asked about their feelings toward law enforcement, the criminal justice system, people who have affairs, civil rights and methamphetamine.
They were given names of witnesses to determine if they had any connections.
The jurors were also reminded that the three men on trial are being tried separately, and their individual charges are separate, so some defendants can be found guilty of some charges; it's not an "all or nothing," Butler said. “You are charged by the court to judge each of them individually."
At the end of the attorneys' questioning, the remaining 46 juror numbers were put into a box and a courtroom deputy selected 33 random numbers from the box. With those 33 names, prosecutors were given seven strikes and the defense attorneys given a combined 12, to shrink the final jury roster to 14. Two of the jurors are alternates, but they will not be told they are alternates.
Once the final 14 jurors were selected and the rest dismissed, McKinley reminded them of the laws he had already explained, and instructed each of them not to talk about the case with anyone or try to do any research about the case.
"We're trying to keep you pure," McKinley said. "We don't want you to hear anything about the case except what you hear in the courtroom."
Eaton, Bennett and Guffey participated in the arrest of Billy Randall Stinnett on Feb. 24, 2010, after Stinnett led law enforcement on a two-county vehicle chase while high on methamphetamine and transporting a mobile meth lab. The three defendants allegedly used unnecessary force while arresting Stinnett, beating him even after he was in handcuffs.
Eaton allegedly tried to cover up the beating by intimidating witnesses, attempting to falsify a report and destroying photographic evidence after the arrest. The government has further alleged the defendants lied to federal investigators in the months following the incident.
The federal trial is scheduled to last two weeks, but McKinley and the attorneys expressed a desire to wrap it up sooner if possible. Opening arguments will begin 9 a.m. Tuesday.